UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 1 | Jan. 3, 2008
NBT: The New Field of Neuroethics
By Judy Illes
Canada Research Chair in Neuroethics, Professor of Neurology, National Core for Neuroethics
Tremendous advances in neuroscience have enhanced our capacity to alter the way we diagnose and cure disease, treat the mentally ill and predict future illness, educate children, formulate public policy to deal with criminals, and understand the inner workings of the brain.
Neuroscience, along with progress in genomics, molecular medicine and other disciplines, has opened new windows on to the understanding of brain health and brain disease that give us this capacity. In addition to traditional lines of research, brain science has begun to investigate issues and qualities that lie at the intersection of medical research and ethics, such as decision-making, intention and bias. The results of these studies, along with the attention that the “Decade of the Brain” in the 1990s brought to them, has heightened focus on public awareness of brain research. As a result, we are poised today to launch a new chapter in brain science -- one that considers the implications of new research in neuroscience for individuals, society, and culture.
How shall society respond as a better understanding of brain biology changes fundamental perceptions of self, moral responsibility, and beliefs? What guidelines are needed to manage staggering, and potentially life-endangering, increases in the use of medicines for children diagnosed with new or poorly understood variants of attention and mood disorders? How will our privacy be protected in an ever-expanding information age? What hope can we expect from progress, and what should we fear? It is at this juncture of ethics, human values, and neuroscience that neuroethics plays its critical role.
Neuroethics is a relatively new discipline that has deep roots in ancient philosophical discussions of mind and brain, and has joined this history with contemporary thinking in biomedical ethics and neuroscience. Many issues in neuroethics have the same starting points as other fields of bioethics – predicting disease, dealing with unexpected findings and unintended consequences of research, drawing attention to areas of potential concern.
Neuroethics, though, is distinguished by wrestling with challenges that probe and touch us most deeply: free will, personal responsibility, personhood, and more. Diversity of culture and language, gender and ethnicity, also all factor into the equation of what defines brain health versus brain disease, risk versus benefit, acceptable versus unacceptable. The task, therefore, is to close the gap between the traditionally lagging consideration of the ethical and social implications of frontier brain technology, and the development of the technology itself.
At the National Core for Neuroethics at UBC, established in August 2007, we are bringing neuroethics to British Columbia for the first time. We focus on high visibility areas of immediate impact. These include, for example, tackling the ethical challenges of:
- predicting devastating dementias that affect cognition and personality
- identifying signs of consciousness in patients with severe brain injury
- “peering” into the brain of individuals to assess guilt or innocence
- commercializing drugs and devices prematurely
To be sure, there will be no “one size fits all” answers to these thorny questions. But there is a time to ask them and to be proactive, and that time is now. Inaction is the greatest risk. As neuroscience advances to define and redefine how we think and why, it will most assuredly take us out of our comfort zone. Neuroethics addresses all these zones -- personal, cultural and societal -- so that we may better understand where neurobiology intersects with human values, and use those insights to help shape and empower both neuroscience and science policy of the future.
For more information: http://neuroethics.ubc.ca.